Saying The Unsayable, Part 2: Race
Like Michael Jackson’s persona, his non-verbal vocalisations are an ambivalent mix of race, sexuality and gender. There are two ways to look at their racialisation. From Paul Carter comes the idea that they occupy “the borderline between what can be said and what can only be acted out.” Therefore, they don’t fit into white traditions of narrative communication. As Carter notes: “Except in performance [they have] no place; except as notation for actions [they have] no meaning.”
So, white culture places them in an orientalist tradition of blackness as exotic spectacle. For instance, in letters and diary entries white Americans recorded their observations of West African slaves celebrating and worshipping, and as David Brackett writes, what they saw “did not present itself in a way that they could comprehend as ordered.”
However, Mark Anthony Neal argues that non-verbal vocalisations are perfectly comprehensible – to African-Americans. These sounds derive their meanings from what theorists of black speech call “tonal semantics”. “The practice of ‘polytonal’ expression,” Neal writes, “in which complex and varying meanings were conveyed via vocal tones, represents a unique process emblematic of the African-American experience.”
Neal argues that tonal semantics created a privileged black cultural sphere. Slaves were denied the musical instruments used in African polyrhythms, and lived under a degree of surveillance that impeded the social activities and individual expression which would usually take place in the private sphere. So, polytonal expression “created the context for the creation of covert social space(s) in which the parameters were not physical, but aural,” Neal argues.
Indeed, there is a rich tradition of non-verbal vocalisation in African-American music: call-and-response field hollers, gospel congregationists speaking in tongues, jazz scatting and the anguished cries of blues and soul.
However, Michael Jackson is a product of a different kind of African-American musical expression – the Motown philosophy of integrating ‘black’ music with wider American popular culture to produce the “Sound of Young America”. Neal points out that, while this process of depoliticisation “satiated both mainstream curiosities about Blackness and African-Americans’ desire to consume their own images”, it also eroded the significance of tonal semantics.
So, Michael Jackson’s non-verbal vocalisations are a kind of racial residue, a stylised form of blackness that doesn’t threaten mainstream white audiences. As his long-time producer Quincy Jones told Time magazine in 1984, “Michael has connected with every soul in the world.”
Jackson’s non-verbal vocalisations also form another kind of racial residue: an extension of the African-American musical practice of citation or sampling. Andrew Bartlett argues that “there is a clear continuum in which African-American artists have put things learned by listening into action by way of performance.”
Digital sampling in hip-hop, Bartlett writes, is a process of “selective archiving”, mining the back catalogue of African-American music for fragments worth preserving. Bebop musicians performed a similar, although less high-tech, process. By appropriating melodic lines from other soloists, they transformed what might have been just a pet phrase or one-off improvisation into a canonical sample that, by subsequent repetition, took on an existence of its own.
Michael Jackson’s childhood performances reveal him to be a keen student of this technique. Reviewing a compilation album of early songs, Neal remarks: “for damn sure he could plead James Brown-style (‘Please, Please, Please’) as he does during the break-down section of ‘I Want You Back’” (“All I want, all I need / All I want, all I need!”).
As an adult, he became self-referential, to the point where the vocalisations intruded upon and even replaced his singing. Perhaps Jackson performed these vocalisations for so long that any affective possibilities they once contained had long since waned. Certainly, the adult Jackson was a perfectionist and harsh self-critic who seemed to have lost the joy that’s so lovely to watch in footage of the child singer – after his landmark performance of ‘Billie Jean’ at the Motown 25 concert, he famously chastised himself for not holding his toe-stand longer.
Or perhaps Jackson’s endless pastiche of his own childhood vocalisations had a nostalgic impetus. It’s been exhaustively documented that Jackson idealised childhood, preferred the company of children to adults, and behaved in childish ways.
But Jackson’s self-citation is still racialised. The non-verbal vocalisations are like jazz licks that have become standards, or classic rhymes repeated by dozens of MCs. While they’re no longer spontaneous or tonally nuanced, they still demonstrate a knowledge of the musical terrain, a homage to previous African-American vocal stylings, and membership of an imagined black community.
This is an edited version of an academic paper that was first presented at the 2003 Australasian conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, and later published in the musicology journal Context.
- Saying The Unsayable, Part 1: Non-Verbal Vocalisations In the aftermath of Michael Jackson's death, this four-part series...